300 (2006)

The good, the bad, and the downright ugly

An in-depth look at the good, bad, and downright ugly aspects of Zack Snyder’s movie 300, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel.

Josho Brouwers

When the movie 300 was originally released in 2006, it caused quite a stir. Many people were impressed with the visuals and the movie is an entertaining testosterone-fuelled adventure set in a pseudo-historical ancient world. But the movie also has a jingoistic undertone and portrays the Persian Empire as a cesspool of cruelty and depravity. The movie’s valiant and manly Spartans are pitted against a cowardly foe that has to whip a slave army into battle.

With the recent release of a sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, now seems like a good time to discuss various aspects of the original 300. I will first discuss some of the good elements of the movie, before turning to the bad parts, with the truly ugly bit saved to the very last. Nevertheless, I should say up front that I actually enjoy 300 for what it is, and that my problems with it don’t impede my enjoyment of it.

Good quotes

The movie was based on the comic book 300 by graphic artist Frank Miller, known especially for Sin City. Miller based the book on a movie he saw as a child, The 300 Spartans (1962). It is clear from the comic book – and by extension the movie– that he made a study of the original sources, as some of the comic’s most memorable lines are taken directly from Herodotus, our main source on the Greco-Persian Wars and the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) in particular.

At one point, a Persian states, “The thousand nations of the Persian empire will descend upon you. Our arrows will blot out the sun!” To this, Stelios replies, “Then we will fight in the shade.” Stelios, of course, is a modern Greek name and is not found in Herodotus. Instead, the quote is attributed to a Spartan named Dieneces (Hdt. 7.226). When the Spartan army prepares itself for the final attack, Leonidas exhorts his men to have a hearty breakfast, “For tonight we dine in hell!” Of course, the Greeks had no “hell” to speak off, but rather a dreary underworld. The original quote is from Plutarch and there Leonidas refers to Hades (Apophthegmata Laconica 225d.13). Plutarch is also the source for the famous quote molon labe (“Come and get them”), which Leonidas is supposed to have uttered when the Persians demanded him to lay down his weapons (idem, 51.11). (It should be noted that Plutarch was a lover of all things Spartan, despite living centuries after their heyday. He’s also not the most reliable of ancient writers.)

Towards the end of the movie, the character Dilios explains how Leonidas told him to remember what had happened at Thermopylae. “May all our voices whisper to you from the ageless stones, ‘Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here by Spartan law, we lie.’” The brief poem is from an epigram in honour of the dead at Thermopylae by Simonides of Keos (ca. 555–465 BC).

Other elements of the comic book are also taken from the ancient sources. The demand for “earth and water” was the typical way to signal submission to the Persian Empire. Herodotus lists those that did submit to Xerxes as the Thessalians, the Dolopes, the Enienes, the Perrhaebi, the Locrians, the Magnetes, the Melians, the Achaeans of Phthiotis, the Thebans and the other Boeotians apart from the Thespians and Plataeans (7.132). He then goes on to say (7.133):

To Athens and Sparta he did not send heralds to demand earth for the following reasons. On a former occasion, when Darius sent for the same purpose, the former having thrown those who made the demand into the barathrum [a deep pit in Athens in which certain criminals were thrown], and the latter into a well, bade them carry earth and water to the king from those places.

In the movie and comic book, however, Xerxes does send a herald to Sparta, who is subsequently kicked into an enormously large and deep well by Leonidas (Gerald Butler). Thus, two separate events have been combined to create a dramatic scene that quickly became an internet meme (“This! Is! Sparta!”). For the movie, the makers gave the messenger the heads and crowns of defeated kings to show to Leonidas. This element, however, is completely a fabrication and serves merely to make the Persians seem more threatening.

Elements of Spartan culture

A more subtle element that Frank Miller introduced are the speech patterns of the Spartans. From at least Herodotus onwards, the Spartans were renowned for their “laconic” way of talking (the term derives from Sparta’s home territory, Laconia). It is especially noticeable in the comic book, where Spartan speech is brief and to the point. The overall demeanour of the Spartans is likewise straightforward and perfectly in keeping with the original sources, even if their presentation – as perfect examples of heterosexual manliness – is largely a caricature.

Both the comic book and the movie contain brief references to the Spartan system of education referred to as the agoge. The origins of this system no doubt relate the Spartan conquest of Messenia. The ancient sources attributed this, like all Spartan customs, laws and traditions, to the legendary lawgiver Lycurgus, about whom we know nothing for certain.

In any event, according to our sources, Spartan babies were indeed inspected for defects at birth by the gerousia, the Spartan council of elders. If found imperfect, the child would be left to die of exposure. Between the ages of 7 and 20, Spartan boys were taught in the agoge to fight and survive, as we know largely from Xenophon and Plutarch. Spartan boys were underfed and encouraged to steal; if caught, they would be punished for their stupidity. The comic book and the movie depict Leonidas as a young boy fighting a wolf. However, the kings’ heirs were actually exempt from theagoge!

The title of the book and the movie refers to the hippeis, the Spartan royal bodyguard of three hundred men, even though it is not clear from Herodotus that the three hundred were actually this bodyguard. In any case, the word hippeis means “horsemen” and it seems likely that this was originally a group of horsemen, perhaps mounted infantry of a type that we encounter frequently on Archaic Greek pottery. At any event, by the time of the Persian Wars, they consisted of three hundred hoplites that accompanied the king whenever he went on campaign.

The overall plot

The overall plot of 300 follows Herodotus to a large degree (Hdt. 201–234). Leonidas was the commander of the allied forces at Thermopylae and had marched there with three hundred chosen men, who had each fathered children (Hdt. 7.205). Leonidas also brought Theban troops with him, as they were thought likely to defect and he wanted to keep a close eye on them: a political detail not dealt with in the comic book or the movie. One of the reasons that there was only a relatively small force at the narrow pass of Thermopylae was that there was a festival in Sparta (the Carnea, touched upon in the comic book), and the other city-states were preoccupied with the Olympic Games. The troops at Thermopylae were not intended to be anything more than an advance-guard (Hdt. 2.206).

Xerxes initially expected the Greeks to flee once they saw the enormous size of the Persian army (Herodotus’ figures are undoubtedly an exaggeration). However, by the fifth day the Greeks were still there and so he ordered a charge, sending “Medes and Cissians against them, with orders to take them alive, and bring them to his presence” (Hdt. 7.210). This battle lasted the entire day and the Greeks withstood the Persian onslaught. Xerxes then sent his “Immortals”, a force that was always kept ten thousand strong, but they too could not break the Greeks, “as they fought in a narrow space, and used shorter spears than the Greeks” (Hdt. 7.211). The comic book and movie depict the Immortals as masked foes, which is pure fantasy. Herodotus claims that the Spartans fought memorably and retreated in close order, whereas the Persians were more disorganized. On the second day of battle, the Persians fared no better and so retired (Hdt. 7.212).

It is at this point that Herodotus introduces the Greek traitor Ephialtes (Hdt. 7.213). The comic book and movie make him a disfigured hunchback with an axe to grind, but there is no trace of this in Herodotus. Furthermore, it seems very unlikely that the Persian army did not send out any scouts to find a path through the mountains and around the narrow “Hot Gates”. Herodotus adds that some claim the information actually came from other people, but then dismisses this idea (Hdt. 7.214). The Phocians stationed to guard the pass discovered the Persians. There was consternation in the Greek camp and some decided to fall back while others wished to stay and fight with Leonidas. Herodotus adds that he believes Leonidas sent most of the troops away to win glory for himself and Sparta, and that he was inspired by a prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi (Hdt. 7.220).

All of the other Greek contingents now left, apart from the Thespians and the Thebans. The former stayed of their own accord while the latter were forced to stay, “as hostages” (Hdt. 7.222). Both the book and the movie completely gloss over this aspect. There were thus 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans at Thermopylae, for a total of 1,400 troops. Yet Herodotus later claims that there were 4,000 casualties (Hdt. 7.228). Peter Hunt, in his important Slaves, Warfare, and Ideology in the Greek historians (1998), adds that the casualties must have included perioeci and helots. Servants and attendants are usually omitted from the sources, but each of the 300 Spartans must have head a shield-bearer (presumably a helot), and these may also have been forced to fight in the final battle. However, Herodotus, like most ancient historians, glosses over these slaves (pp. 31–32), and so do Frank Miller and the moviemakers.

The third day of fighting was the heaviest thus far, with the Persians determined to break through the Greek lines. Early in the battle, Leonidas was killed and a Homeric-style struggle for control over his corpse erupted between the Greeks and the Persians (Hdt. 7.224). In 300, Leonidas is among the last to die. The book and movie also feature a fake surrender of the Spartan king that is not mentioned in our sources. In reality, Xerxes only met Leonidas when the latter was already dead. Supposedly, two brothers of Xerxes were killed in the struggle over Leonidas’ body (Hdt. 7.225). The battle raged on and the Greeks retreated to a hillock, where they fought with swords, teeth and bare hands to the last.

Omissions and unnecessary additions

The movie’s main character is the Spartan king, Leonidas. Kingship had largely died out shortly before or in the early stages of the Archaic period (ca. 800500 BC), replaced in most city-states by oligarchies and especially aristocracies. Sparta was even stranger because it had not one king, but two. The origins of this diarchy are obscure and the movie and comic book ignore this aspect completely in favour of a solitary king, no doubt to avoid confusing general audiences.

The movie adds an entirely superfluous political plot in an attempt to give Queen Gorgo (Lena Heady) something more to do than just wave her husband goodbye. A character by the name of Theron (Dominic West) attempts to sow discord and is discovered to have been paid off by the Persians. This subplot adds a lot of unnecessary filler; it would have been better if the makers had stuck more closely to the original comic book.

There are a few times that the movie adds unnecessary elements to the original story, most of which have a detrimental effect on the final product. At around the 30-minute mark, the Spartans and their allies arrive at a village that has been destroyed by the Persians. A small child emerges and collapses in the arms of Leonidas. However, this scene makes no sense: how could the Persians have penetrated this far south into Greece? One of the Spartans mumbles that it must have been a “scouting party”, but the purpose of a reconnaissance party is to scout out the countryside, not to destroy entire villages. When the Greeks discover that the bodies of the villagers were nailed to a tree, they realize that it must have been the Immortals, which makes even less sense.

Other additions are equally redundant. At one point, the comic book depicts a battle against elephants, but the movie adds a rhinoceros to the equation. We know that the Persians used elephants in the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), and it has been suggested that even Darius I already used them in battle, but they are not attested in Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Thermopylae. Rhinos were not used in battle at all. Similarly, the so-called “Über-Immortal”, a gigantic manlike creature that Leonidas fights at one point, is entirely fantastic.

Of course, at this point some may point out that the story is told by Dilios, who we can perhaps regard as an unreliable narrator. However, this is rendered moot whenever the story cuts back to Sparta, and it is obvious that in the movie, at least, we are following the story as it was supposed to have happened. Indeed, some elements Dilios could never have known, including the death of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans.

One final point where the movie deliberately deviates from the comic book is in its depiction of battle. Both contain a scene in which Ephialtes makes clear that he would like to serve Sparta, but his deformity makes him unable to function properly in the phalanx. The phalanx, as Leonidas points out, is what gives the Spartan army its strength. The cohesion of the phalanx is stressed in both the comic book and the movie, but in a few cases director Zack Snyder opts to show the Spartans breaking ranks and engaging the Persians directly. In one case, this even results in the death of one of the Spartans an element of drama wholly absent from the comic book.

Errors and anachronisms

The Spartans are portrayed as a warrior culture. This is true to the original sources, even though they are likely to have exaggerated the warlike aspects of Sparta society. But the heavy emphasis that the movie in particular places on the idea of Spartans as “free men” obscures the fact that this freedom was limited to male Spartiates, i.e. citizens. These Spartiates were able to devote their time to warfare because they had, at some unknown point between ca. 800 and 500 BC, conquered the territory of Messenia and reduced its inhabitants to the status of helots, a kind of serfs. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus describes them as suffering “like donkeys under heavy loads” (fr. 6 West).

The helots were obliged to work the land of the Spartiates, who in turn had to devote all their time to mastering the arts of war in order to keep the helots in check. (By the way, the single most useful book on ancient Spartan society, to my mind, is D.M. MacDowell’s Spartan Law (1986). Unlike a lot of other books on ancient Sparta, MacDowell bases his work entirely on a detailed study of the ancient sources with particular emphasis on the law, offering a solid and reliable starting point for further study.)

Furthermore, those who lived outside of Sparta, in the many other towns and villages of Laconia, were known as perioikoi, “dwellers about”. They were relatively free, but obliged to pay taxes and serve in the military. The comic book and movie entirely ignores both the helots and the perioeci and, especially the movie version, instead presents Spartan military society as some kind of beacon of justice and freedom.

I have already touched upon the absence of a second king in 300, but at least Leonidas is given a courtesy that did not extend to the poor ephors. In ancient Sparta, these were powerful magistrates that shared power with the Spartan kings. They were elected by the popular assembly and some later Athenian writers believed that political power was largely vested in them rather than the kings. However, the book and movie present the ephors as “Priests to the old gods. Inbred swine whom even the king must bribe and beg.” They also seem to hold an “oracle” captive, another completely unnecessary fabrication.

Finally, let’s have a look at the military dress of the Spartans, or their lack of it. The Spartans wear small leather Speedos and red capes. In the comic book, they are even shown naked. While their lack of attire is probably inspired by Greek vase-paintings of naked warriors, it is unlikely that the Greeks themselves fought naked. Instead, one would expect the Spartans to have worn tunics and bronze bell-shaped cuirasses or linen corslets.

Other elements of the equipment depicted in the book and movie are not entirely correct: the swords are not of any recognizable type, the Corinthian helmets have a strange frontal plate and the shields seem very roughly finished. Furthermore, use of the lambda (Greek for L, representing Lacedaemonia) as a shield emblem is not attested until the Peloponnesian Wars, or some fifty years after Thermopylae. By the time of the Persian Wars, the Spartans would have used shields with various types of blazons depicting, for example, animals, mythological monsters, or more abstract figures. The shields in the comic book and the movie are thus somewhat odd-looking and anachronistic.

The monstrous Persian army

When, in the movie, the Greeks run into a village that is completely destroyed, with the villagers nailed to trees, they discover a monstrous footprint and realize that the raiders must have been Xerxes’ elite troops, the “Immortals”. In the comic book and the movie, the “Immortals” are depicted as warriors wrapped in black and silver and wearing grotesque masks that further server to dehumanize them.

In reality, the Immortals were a force of ten thousand elite troops. They were called “Immortals” not for any supernatural reasons, as suggested in the movie, but for the fact that casualties were immediately replaced so that their number remained at ten thousand. We also have a good idea what they looked like, namely not that differently from other Persian troops, and equipped with spear and bow. Reliefs from Darius’ palace at Persepolis interestingly depict them with spears roughly the same length as hoplite spears.

In some cases, the film makers felt the need to dehumanize the Persians even further. They introduce an “Über-Immortal”, a giant that is unchained and then unleashed; he succeeded in wounding Leonidas. Furthermore, at one point, Xerxes is displeased and orders some of his men executed. The executioner is a severely obese man whose hands were replaced by blades embedded into his arms. At this point it is clear that we have entirely strayed into the realm of the fantastical.

Less offensive is the Persian army’s use of “magicians”, warriors who throw grenades at the Spartans that explode in a fiery display of pyrotechnics. This particular element of the movie – absent as far as I can tell from the comic book – is another wholly superfluous addition. Gunpowder was invented in China, perhaps in the ninth century AD, and nothing existed earlier that could explode in such a manner. This is just as ridiculous an anachronism as having Alexander the Great fly to India in a helicopter. The only positive thing is that, in the world of 300 at least, it suggests that Persian technology was more advanced than Greek.

An army of slaves?

The Greeks in 300 refer to themselves as “free men”. By contrast, the Persians are said to field an army of slaves that have to be whipped into battle. Both of these aspects need to be qualified. I have already mentioned earlier that the Greek army probably included a sizeable amount of slaves. In fact, slavery was probably more widespread among the Greeks than among the Persians, and the Spartans in particular owed their success entirely to having reduced the entire population of Messenia to the status of helots, a kind of serfs.

The Achaemenid army was distinct from the navy and consisted of a standing force (the Immortals), probably supported by another professional body of cavalry. These standing troops consisted of Persians, Medes, and Elamites. They formed the core of the Persian army. Additional troops consisted of the levee – men called up for service in times of need – and mercenaries, the latter of which included large numbers of Greeks. We also know that Jewish mercenaries were used to guard the Egyptian frontier at Elephantine. The comic book and the movie refer to the “thousand nations” of the Persian Empire, but little difference is to be noted in the final products: they all look like generic Middle-Eastern combatants.

Herodotus does mention that Persian troops were sometimes whipped to motivate them. But ancient historians are not objective sources of information, and it should come as no surprise that Herodotus is not always as impartial as we would like to believe. The Persian kings are consistently depicted as ignoring sage advice, a decision that always comes back to haunt them. In other instances, the Greeks are depicted as working closely together and of operating in what seems to be close order. By contrast, the Persians are said to be disorganized and undisciplined, and thus sometimes have to be forced into line. However, how likely is it that Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, or any other Persian king was able to conquer and hold a vast territory if his army consisted of unruly rabble? The answer is that our sources – all Greek – deliberately portray the Persians as less effective and perhaps more cruel than was truly the case.

Portrayal of King Xerxes

Xerxes is portrayed as the embodiment of the Persian Empire: he is a giant with an imposing voice, but also effeminate. His wealth is displayed through all of his jewellery. Unlike King Leonidas, he does not engage in combat himself. The Spartans and other Greeks are shown without jewellery, nor do they engage in acts of debauchery. An interest in gold on the part of a Greek is the sign of a traitor (Theron). Xerxes is carried around on a giant platform, elevated high above his troops, whereas Leonidas marches on foot, just like his men (all of whom are, of course, among the elite of Spartan society, a point ignored by 300).

In reality, of course, Xerxes was not that different from other Persian kings. He was not a giant, nor did he ponce about covered in gold. Like his predecessors, he was a strong ruler, but appears to have been relatively sober. In the empires of the ancient Near East, kings were not gods themselves, but owed their power directly to the gods. If a king was killed in battle or deposed, the general consensus was that he had fallen out of favour among the divinities. In Persian inscriptions, Xerxes generally gives thanks to Ahura Mazda, the highest spirit in Zoroastrianism, paying homage to the divinity most responsible for his continued rule and success.

Closing remarks

The comic book and the movie 300 are both highly subjective renderings of the Battle of Thermopylae. In some respects, they follow the original sources – largely Herodotus – to a good degree, but they deviate in many other places. The portrayal of the Persians as an army of virtually inhuman monsters is patently ridiculous, but one could make the argument that they are shown as such through the eyes of our unreliable narrator, Dilios.

The Battle of Thermopylae is treated like a pyrrhic victory and the beginning of another military failure for the Persians. But Thermopylae was a defeat for the Greeks and the Persians succeeded in punishing Athens by burning the city to the ground. Their main aim was probably never actually to conquer Greece. Unfortunately, our main sources for the Persian Wars are all Greek and it should come as no surprise that their take on the matter is skewed. The Greeks of the Classical age saw the Persian Wars as a victory of the Greek spear over the Persian bow. Eastern peoples were considered decadent and effeminate. The Romans would later regard contemporary Greeks in a similar way. As modern students, we must not fall into the trap of regarding such ideological notions as true to history: a detailed study of the Achaemenid Empire reveals a culture as rich, as sophisticated, and as interesting as that of the ancient Greeks.

It is great when 300 and other similar products of popular culture can stimulate awareness and intelligent discussion on the ancient world. But it would be even better if they would strive for more historical accuracy and a more even-handed portrayal of ancient peoples and events. Not everyone is able, or willing, to look past the creators’ flights of fancy, and it is easy and understandable for people to become offended when they feel that their culture is misrepresented.